The energy job gamble

What does the “re-engineering of education” mean for B.C. post-secondary students and future workers?

This was the trade show floor at the provincial government-hosted International LNG in BC Conference in May 2014. (Image courtesy Province of British Columbia)

This was the trade show floor at the provincial government-hosted International LNG in BC Conference in May 2014. (Image courtesy Province of British Columbia)

Economists, environmentalists and policy groups have all taken stabs at predicting the future of British Columbia’s economy. Some hope for job creation, some just hope we can maintain the jobs we have, and some are concerned about the environmental well-being of the province. The questions raised from the predictions made are important ones, though. They’re also hard to answer.

In China, energy consumption is matching economic growth, and the country finds itself with a demand for energy and the money to pay for it. Other Asian countries are continuously having to re-evaluate their energy needs.

Back here in B.C., students weigh their academic options, trying to decide between the arts, sciences and trades, looking for a path that might one day land them a job.

What does the future of Asian energy markets have to do with B.C. post-secondary education?

It might be a whole lot.

The provincial government has high hopes for a liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry. It’s looking to build five LNG plants and supporting pipelines, resulting in “more than 39,000 annual jobs … over a nine-year construction period and 75,000 jobs once these plants are fully operational,” according to a Nov. 29, 2013 press release following one of Premier Christy Clark’s trips to Asia.

In terms of the timeline, the scope of the plan is massive. The phrase “lasting legacy” is even being tossed around.

“The market potential is clear, and demand for LNG is growing. Our LNG Strategy has attracted the interest of the world, and the progress made to date is proof that we are destined to be a global supplier of natural gas. LNG is an unprecedented opportunity to build economic wealth for our province and to build a lasting legacy for British Columbians,” Rich Coleman, minister of energy and mines, said in a February 2013 press release.

It’s with these plans in mind that the province rolled out the Skills for Jobs Blueprint to “re-engineer education” to help fill the trades jobs it hopes to create. A big part of the plan is the re-allocation of funds towards programs that produce students for high-demand professions. Although this includes a wide array of trades positions that truly are in high demand, the move looks like a gamble to some, primarily because B.C.’s LNG future is anything but determined.

“B.C. shouldn’t gamble with post-secondary education simply to provide workers for an unproven industry with an unclear future and an unknown commitment to job creation,” wrote Bill Tieleman for the Tyee in a May 6 opinion piece. Tieleman also noted his support for more trades training, calling the initiative “long overdue.”

In its 2014 Institutional Accountability Plan & Report, TRU presented material adapted from the province’s job data and reported that “the demand for skilled workers is expected to grow at a faster rate than the supply of skilled workers, leading to an estimated shortage of 61,500 workers by 2020. In order to meet the demand, the B.C. labour market is expected to rely heavily upon migrants from the rest of Canada as well as other countries.”

This graph, found in the 2013/14-2015/16 TRU Institutional Accountability Plan and Report, shows that around midway through 2015, demand for workers will begin exceeding supply. (Image courtesy TRU)

This graph, found in the 2013/14-2015/16 TRU Institutional Accountability Plan and Report, shows that around midway through 2015, demand for workers will begin exceeding supply. (Image courtesy TRU)

The B.C. government’s projected revenues as a result of LNG are between $130 billion and $260 billion over the next 30 years, with $100 billion or more of that money going into the province’s “Prosperity Fund.”

But these numbers, based on LNG prospects and continued economic growth, have garnered skepticism from some.

The B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) released a critical report in April 2014, which called on the government to conduct a reality check of its own.

In addressing demand, the report noted that Asian markets are anything but predictable.

“Japan and South Korea account for more than half of global LNG imports, yet both may reduce LNG imports as they reinstate nuclear power after shutdowns in recent years,” the report reads. It continues, “Japan was the single largest importer of LNG by a large margin, with more than one-third (36 per cent) of global imports.”

But in analysing the reasons for Japan’s LNG appetite, the report reveals that a large part of the demand was Japan’s momentary nuclear facility shutdowns in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and disaster at Fukushima, and that in its recent 2014 Basic Energy Plan, it has plans to restart much of its nuclear activity.

“If Japan’s gas consumption fell back to 2010 levels, this drop would be more than all of China’s LNG imports in 2012,” the report states.

The CCPA also warned against an Asian market “buyer’s club,” pointing to the fact that India, Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan account for 70 per cent of LNG imports.

The buyer’s club is something Premier Clark has addressed before. She told the Globe and Mail that “I don’t know that there will be a buyers’ club – I don’t know all the competitors in Asia will be able to get together to set those prices,” in a Dec. 10, 2013 article.

As a result of these analyses, the CCPA predicts that LNG income tax and royalties will only amount to $0.2 billion to $0.6 billion per year, noting for context that B.C.’s annual budget is $45 billion per year.

Among the other caveats pointed out by the CCPA, is the issue of domestic gas prices. The CCPA report states that natural gas production in B.C. has increased by one-third in the past five years, even though domestic prices have remained “extremely low.” Furthermore, it points out that infrastructure costs related to turning the gas into a liquid for transport will eat away at the price differences between Asian markets and North American markets, canceling out any high price demand overseas.

The success or failure of what might be a high risk gamble by the B.C. government aside, the “re-engineering of education” will have an effect on post-secondary education.

In a May 14 opinion piece to the Toronto Star, Don Tapscott called for the defense of arts and science degrees.

“The purpose of education is not only to train workers. Considering challenges such as climate change, economic turmoil and international conflict, we need workers who are also knowledgeable citizens,” Tapscott wrote. “Yes, we need ‘STEM’ (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates. But what we really need is ‘STEAM,’ adding in an A for arts.”

If the gamble pays off, B.C. could find itself with a wealth of tradespeople ready and willing to work within the province and a hefty bank account to add in some financial security. But with so many external factors at play and questions over how we’re changing the makeup of our post-secondary education system, is it a bet we should have made?